Menu Planning Basics

Successful meals begin long before you address knife to vegetable or pour oil into the sauté pan. Although it can be tedious, I’ve found that menu planning is the foundation of provident eating. When I plan menus I succeed in getting dinner on the table even on time crunch days, thereby avoiding financially and calorically expensive take-out. Menu planning also allows me to consider my own food goals and actually put them into practice. Finally, I find that I waste much less food, thereby saving even more money, when I plan menus.

The most critical element of menu planning has nothing to do with the food itself. This element is scheduling. My husband and I come to a Sunday evening meeting together with our schedules for the coming week in mind. We resolve conflicts and clarify outside obligations. Armed with this information I avoid the disappointment of learning of an evening meeting just as I am preparing to plate a particularly time-intensive dinner. By utilizing this information in my menu planning I can tailor the menus to the variable circumstances of each day and prepare menu components in advance as necessary.

When you know how your day is going to flow you can plan how meal preparation is going to fit into it. If you are going to be busy in the morning but relatively free in the late afternoon you could prepare a meal that requires more attention immediately prior to serving. If you expect to be busier right before dinner hour then a slowly cooking or quick preparation meal may be the best option.

Another benefit to menu planning is that it allows me to thoughtfully plan meals that reflect my own culinary ideology and goals, a difficult task to accomplish on the fly with limited time. Consider your nutritional goals, your honest feelings about food and food production, your budget, and your time; then, incorporate these goals into your weekly plan. For instance, imagine that you have decided to replace one meat-centric meal per week with a vegetarian meal; if you have planned in advance you will be more likely to succeed with this goal.

Planning menus is a great way to encourage yourself to try new foods or recipes that you would likely pass over if you were pressed for time and hungry. If you are trying to include more greens in your diet you could plan to make kale chips one night instead of serving potato chips with the hot dogs. Perhaps the next week you could add a second green, and so on. As far as I am concerned, dietary changes meet with less resistance when you allow yourself to make them gradually.

Finally, planning menus allows you to take advantage of sales, remember important holidays and family anniversaries, and avoid the frustration of missing just one or two ingredients or having excess ingredients languish in your refrigerator.
One of the difficulties with conventional cookbooks and menu planning is that cookbooks are organized and focused in such a way that one becomes lost in the planning process. Dishes are highly stylized and, unless one is in an extraordinarily creative mood, difficult to adapt to different ingredients without a great deal of effort. It can be frustrating to seek a recipe for a specific ingredient and find that the book includes only one or two applications. Additionally, cookbooks are heavily focused on meatcentric entrees and this can discourage the use of alternative proteins, particularly when one is unfamiliar with their best uses. These are some of the reasons why I have developed my own approach to menu planning and cooking.
In evaluating dishes in my many cookbooks I have assembled a list of several types of cooking. Into these I group my recipes. The recipes are written so as to invite adaptation to seasonal ingredients and non-meat proteins. I also find that as I assign recipes from the different groups over the course of the week, I experience less redundancy in my dinners. For example, one of the categories is searing/sautéing/pan-frying and this category includes stir-frys. A basic recipe for stir-fry would include suggestions for vegetables that suit the three growing-related seasons, which are pre-growing season, growing season, and post-growing season. The following are my cooking categories:
  1. Direct Heat (this includes searing, sautéing, pan-frying, and grilling)
  2. Indirect Heat (this includes roasting and braising)
  3. Salad (this includes any amalgamation of cold ingredients and a sauce)
  4. Mezze (this includes menus that consist of a variety of little dishes, often consistent with a cultural theme, which are designed to be tasted together)
  5. Cassarole (this includes dishes for which the ingredients are handled separately before being combined and baked as a whole)
  6. Soup & Stew (this includes any amalgamation of hot ingredients in suspension, which may or may not be cooked together)
  7. Sandwiches, etc. (this includes any marriage of a bread and a protein, as in sandwiches, pizzas, tamales, dumplings, etc.)
  8. Noodle & Rice (this includes all dishes in which the noodles or rice are the primary ingredient)
As you organize your recipes into these categories you will find that planning can become much more streamlined. It is far easier to look at a large cookbook and find something in it that is a casserole because it is Monday and you always have casseroles on Mondays, then it is to flip aimlessly through the pages with glassy eyes and a distracted brain. There are clearly more categories than there are days of a week so you will obviously not cover all categories in the course of a week. On The Provident Table blog I will identify the category into which the recipe falls, as well as write recipes and suggestions that can be easily adapted to varying ingredients.

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